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SCARF Model for Agile teams: the ultimate guide-EN

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Alonso Alvarez

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Neuroscience in support of teams

We are used to hearing that “this” is about people. Where “it” is the projects, the processes that organizations rely on, and the organizations itself. “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” says the Agile Manifesto for example.

Thanks to psychology and neuroscience we know that peculiar things happen inside our heads: we are more likely to make risky investments if we see smiling faces; that our moral perception depends on whether or not we use our language, as does our ability to be passionate or neutral in a discussion; or that smiling, even without having to, improves our mood; or that we confuse the feeling of danger with physical attraction to other people (as shown by a curious experiment with a suspension bridge).

Taken closer to home, psychology and neuroscience can also help us when working with teams and, these days, especially with remote teams.

There have always been people working away from their offices and away from their colleagues. But in recent months this has occurred on an unprecedented scale, and has brought to the surface problems and dysfunctions of all kinds. These problems have been addressed with big actions and measures, but in small, local actions, we can achieve big results.

In 2008, the Australian David Rock published an article and, as a result, a book where, based on the findings of neuroscientists, he defined a series of dimensions around the so-called “social pain”. Neuroscience says that in social situations we have reactions in the pain and reward centers of our brain similar to those provoked by physical actions.

SCARF Model

David Rock summarizes the various reactions in 5 dimensions shown here.

SCARF Model for Agile teams: the ultimate guide | Ilustrated by Andy Baraja

The different sizes of the arrows represent the intensity of the two basic responses. As can be seen, the one that induces flight versus attraction is always more pronounced.

Although this model has been in circulation for more than 10 years, we have been able to verify that it is in fact a great unknown. Therefore, we are going to review one by one its five dimensions (SCARF):

S refers to status, interpreted as our place in the world and how we are perceived. Feeling relegated or belittled causes a neurological reaction in the pain centers of the brain similar to physical pain. This does not mean that we perceive it the same, i.e., it does not hurt like a blow. But internally, the brain treats them in the same way. In the remote world a person who feels that they are not being listened to because of a technical problem, who is relegated in a session for whatever reason, whose opinions are ignored, or who may feel that they are being ignored, is a person who will perceive themselves as undervalued in relation to others. She is a person who will disengage from the group and the work, and who will respond negatively to what she perceives as a threat to her place in the world.

C refers to certainty, and the extent to which we have control over what happens to us. Undoubtedly, the current conditions are the least appropriate to avoid social pain in this dimension. But within a team, or in a remote session, we can help mitigate it by applying transparency, anticipating the agenda with the steps we are going to follow, and providing sufficient information about the development of the actions in which people are going to be involved.

A refers to autonomy. By now, it is well known that it is one of David Pink’s intrinsic motivators. And we all know how demotivating it is to lack any autonomy in our work. Neuroscience tells us that it is also painful, within the definition of pain that we are dealing with.

And conversely, having mastery over our actions activates the brain’s reward centers. With a remote team, as with a face-to-face team, actions that help them actively participate in defining their work will activate the reward centers. Micro-management or continuous reporting – very frequent when teams have suddenly moved from face-to-face to remote – will activate those social pain centers.

The R of Relatedness refers to the degree of belonging, of integration. It would be the opposite of isolation and loneliness. It means that the best way to reduce the social pain within a team and increase the reward response is to do everything possible to facilitate the connection between its various members. This is a challenge in a remote environment.

It is a matter of resorting to the imagination to devise actions similar, though hardly equivalent, to those we would do in a face-to-face environment to maintain cohesion and a sense of belonging. In recent months some organizations have held open mic sessions to simulate sharing the same room, have replaced the coffee machine with a recurring virtual coffee meeting, and in general have tried different actions to try to recover a contact that has become very complicated.

Finally, F refers to fairness. To an innate sense of fairness that develops very early in very young children and is present in primates, our close relatives. Feeling unfairly treated triggers very strong reactions. Here social pain is very close to physical pain. Transparency, clarity, openly and frankly stating everyone’s demands, needs and expectations help to develop the empathy that facilitates fairness in the treatment of people. In general, everything that fosters mutual acceptance is in favor of this dimension.

David Rock goes far beyond the SCARF model

His work includes the management of emotions, memory and cognitive capacity and their limitations, and in general our own limitations. He has been developing a field of knowledge called neuroleadership, which does not enjoy the same acceptance as the SCARF model.

At bottom, SCARF is still a narrative (and as such, subject to the narrative fallacy), a simplification of reality that helps us to manage it and move within it. For the world of coaching and team management, it has the advantage that it resonates easily with many of the concepts that are commonly used. How can it not sound good that our brain favors autonomy or the creation of a safe environment between people? Besides, we have medical evidence to prove it!

Like other models, practices and techniques, knowing it is not the same as applying it. But when you properly manage the situation you are in, when you are aware that it is possible to apply it and how, you can get both you and your team to benefit from it.

And in the worst case scenario we can always play (or hack) our own cognitive limitations and get a positive placebo effect.


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Picture of Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez

Alonso Alvarez
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